JULY 2013. GRAND TETON PEAK, WYOMING

In February of this year I turned 65.  Ugh.  It seems catastrophically old.  Five years earlier, I had invented a cheerful motto to assuage the sting of turning 60, which seemed bad enough: “Sixty: Too young to quit skiing, too old to go bald.”  I couldn’t use that again, so I considered several other consolations: 1) Turning 65 in 2013, already so soon, is better than never turning 65 at all; and 2) now I qualified for Medicare, meaning that the egregiously high premiums I was paying to a certain insurance company, as a self-employed person, not part of a group, who occasionally rides small airplanes in Africa and engages in other mildly risky behavior, would disappear from my monthly nut.  I drank a grateful toast to Lyndon Johnson—something that wouldn’t have occurred to me during the Vietnam war—for that blessing.

And I took one other measure of birthday observance, rather more reckless.  Half-seriously, I muttered aloud to my dear wife: This year, I want to climb the Grand Teton.  I’ve lived in the shadow of that mountain for forty years, and it’s time that I get a look at the view from the top.

David Quammen atop Grand Teton with (left to right) Paul Bertelli, David, Conrad Anker and Betsy Quammen.Betsy took me seriously.  Before I knew it, she had made one call and my birthday present was arranged.  Her call was to our good friend Conrad Anker (one of the world’s preeminent mountaineers—in case you don’t happen to follow climbing—as well as an extraordinarily fine and unpretentious man).  Conrad said: Sure, sounds like fun, he’d be glad to accompany me, and Betsy too, to the top of the Grand.  He put it into his calendar for mid-July.  Which meant that I, with my big mouth, had to put it into my calendar too.

This wouldn’t be guiding.  This would be a larkish outing among friends, one of whom happened to be vastly competent within the context and the others, um, not quite so much.

Betsy Quammen on Grand Teton.Another good friend, Paul Bertelli, signed on for this enterprise.  A strong young climber named Bud Martin, whom Paul and Conrad both knew and trusted, became our fifth.  I put myself into training with afternoon hikes, up a small mountain near home, carrying a backpack loaded with 30 pounds of canteens.  Betsy, Paul, and I also did a little technical practice, under the tutorship of Conrad and Bud, on local rock.  Despite the four decades in Montana, and with so many old ski and kayak buddies who are also climbers, I had never done any technical climbing to speak of.  But the Grand isn’t too technical, mostly just high and dramatically lovely and steep, with a bit of serious exposure.  If Conrad reckoned we could get up it, or that at least we had a reasonable chance, then I figured we were not being foolish or presumptuous to try.  He’s too smart and too sober to encourage delusional aspirations when it comes to a mountain.

We hiked into Garnet Canyon on July 15.  Unhurried, we spent the next day climbing some pitches around our camp.  July 17, starting at three a.m., was our summit day.  I won’t march through the narrative here.  This was always meant to be a private experience done for its own sake, not a magazine assignment or grist for writing of any sort.  I’ll just say that we were lucky in weather, and in friendship, and in where we placed our hands and feet.  I can’t resist sharing the joy expressed in these few photos.  They reflect the fact that my belated 65th birthday present was one of the best things I’ve ever been given.